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Living on 'One Tough Block'

Celedonia "Cal" Jones grew up in Harlem during the 1930s. When he was 9 years old, his family moved to a new block. And, as Celedonia recently told his friend Robert Harris, being the new kid wasn't easy.

"I remember moving to 143rd Street between Lennox and Seventh; that was probably one of the toughest blocks in the city at the time. The first day that I moved into the block and came out to play, this fellow comes up and he said, 'Hey, my name is Dickey, what's yours?' So I said, 'Well, I'm Cal,' and I put my hand out to shake and ... bang, he hits me in the eye.

"All I wanted to do was be friends," Jones told him.

"That's how we start friends in this block," Dickey responded.

Jones and Harris laugh at the memory.

"That was the kind of reception that I got moving into this block," Jones says.

On one "really hot" day, Jones, his brother and some neighbors in their building were looking for something to do. They decided it was too hot for box ball, a street game played with a rubber ball on a court drawn on the street.

"My brother said, 'I guess it would really be something if someone tried to run around this court in this weather.'

"And so this fellow, Gordon, said, 'Ah, it wouldn't bother me.' My brother Joe said, 'I'll bet you can't run around the court 52 times.' So Gordon said, 'Yes, I could. I bet a dime.' "

For kids at the time, that was "big money," Jones says.

"So Gordon starts running around the court, and people are beginning to come out, and they see Gordon running around. It must have been almost 100 degrees by that time. People said, 'What is that fool running around the court for? You better stop him. He's going to fall out.'" The crowd got bigger.

"Meanwhile, he's running around the court 28, 29 times, and as he'd pass, he'd say to Joe: 'You better have my dime.'

"And I said to Joe, 'Where are you going to get a dime to pay him?'

"Joe said, 'I don't know.' "

"He's going 49, and he's barely making it around, so when he hit the 50th time, my brother Joe says, 'I don't have a dime. I'm not going to pay you, and we can fight right now.'

"And he's standing up to tell Joe, 'I'm going to hurt you, Joseph. Come on.'

"Joe was dancing around like Joe Louis," Jones says.

"That's the kind of block it was; that was a tough block."

Jones is Manhattan Borough historian emeritus. He recorded his interview as part of StoryCorps Griot, an initiative that collects the recollections of black Americans. This segment was produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo with Selly Thiam.

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